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People Making Changes Issue 22 -
The Beneficiaries Advisory Service

- Dorothy - 17/7/97

An interview with Jim Lamb.

Go through an inconspicuous door, climb some quite steep stairs, and you find yourself in the office of the Beneficiaries' Advisory Service - a spacious and welcoming office.

Until I talked to Jim Lamb, manager of the service,

Jim Lamb
How did Jim become involved in this work?
I was unaware of the precise nature of the services offered. As Jim talked I gained a picture of how the Service developed. the types of problems beneficiaries wanted to discuss and the help that is offered them - first a listening ear and then advice on their rights within the law and advocacy in having their concerns heard and their grievances addressed.

How did Jim become involved in this work?
In the late 1980s he became redundant after changes in the New Zealand Railways. Here his work in the Union Movement gave him an analysis of where things were heading. It also gave a clear indication that what was being done supposedly 'in the public interest' was not, as was often asserted, 'good for the people of New Zealand'.

Jim became deeply involved in the work of the Unemployed Movement. At that time there were forty to fifty groups nationwide, and they were well enough researched to meet six monthly somewhere in the country. The biggest meetings would have several hundred people present. It was one of the strongest unemployed movements in the world - well organised and rife with internal conflicts (which displayed the diversity of the issues).

The first national activity in which Jim was involved was a week-long meeting in Wellington culminating in a march on Parliament of about 5000 people.

Regrettably the time when the unemployed movement disintegrated was the time when it really became necessary. There had been a change in the nature of unemployment since the early eighties. In 1982 the view was expressed that if the number of unemployed reached 80.000 society would disintegrate. In fact the society we knew in 1980 has now gone. Until 1988 there were people unemployed, but there was a reasonably supportive benefit system which met most of their major needs and most people experienced short-term unemployment. People could go from one relatively well-paid job and after a few months find another.

In the late eighties the average period of unemployment became much longer and the jobs that people found were usually low-paid. This meant that they had been able to save very little to assist them during the period without jobs. Many people had constant poverty problems. By 1991 the average period of unemployment was two years.

Jim describes his background as coming from "the Golden Age" of the unemployed movement through to 1991. He recalls that in 1989 and 1990 Unemployed Rights would have some sort of protest every month to draw attention to an issue affecting the unemployed.

December 17 1991 - Benefit Cuts
When this news was announced there were around four hundred people ready to protest. It was a period of intense activity when the organisers of Unemployed Rights moved from being background workers to being key figures communicating with the media and speaking to groups around the country. This put immense pressure on them and made untenable demands on some. They were working fifteen to sixteen hours a day and at the same time coping with the difficulties of living on a reduced benefit.

As there was very little employment available the Employment Service and Income Support were not pushing people to take jobs at this time. This meant that people adjusted to a lifestyle living off the benefit. There is still only limited employment and even less for people who are "disadvantaged" for admission to the work force - by age, gender, child care.

By 1992 many of the people in Unemployed Rights were exhausted. The group was blacklisted for funding because it had a political perspective, personal pressures came from the increased difficulty of living on a benefit, and within a few months the whole movement disintegrated. What happened in the movement was a fair indicator of what happened to people in general. The end of the movement reflected the low morale of most unemployed people.

Two strands emerge
With the disintegration of most groups in 1992 two strands of thinking emerged. Until 1992 the local group had operated as a totally open collective with a weekly meeting and consensus decision making. Some felt strongly that this pattern should continue. It worked well, especially on short term issues. Working on long term strategic goals was more difficult. Acceptance of anyone unemployed who came and offered time was regarded as of paramount importance.

Others felt a need for more organisation. From the latter view came the People's Centre in Auckland which ran a medical centre, a business training centre and numerous other services, including advocacy. This Centre accessed a large fund of startup capital and continued handling large amounts of money, so financial accountability was essential.

In Wellington a similar concept was developed, with a large amount of starting capital.

Decision making in Christchurch
Jim interviewed the people who had developed the North Island centres. In the Wellington inner city area there were virtually no services for low income people until the People's Centre was established. Services there catered for those who worked there and returned to homes in the suburbs at night.

In Christchurch the startup capital for a service to the unemployed was only $500. The rooms used by the Unemployed Rights Movement were directly over the Trade Union Medical Centre which offered treatment at reasonable fees. Christchurch has a large number of social services.

The Christchurch Beneficiary Advisory Services
What Christchurch beneficiaries needed was advocacy which had always been

Jim Lamb & client
Jim listens to a client's problems
part of the work of Unemployed Rights. During 1993 Jim gathered together a group of people who were on benefits themselves and could work as advocates for beneficiaries. The openness of the group was retained, but there was a clear aim and the primary goals were clearly defined.

The focus on advocacy has met a real need. This work is being done by groups throughout the country in spite of pressures to close the groups down. The Service has found that there is a huge gap between what Income Support is doing in daily practice and what is actually written in the law. Action as a group is much more effective than individual appeals. The group has acquired a deep knowledge of welfare law which is used to represent the claims of beneficiaries.

Staff of the Service
The office staff are people who have been deemed 'unemployable', but after experience and training in the centre most are able to apply for and obtain other work.

'Benefit Fraud'
The Centre is constantly dealing with cases related to so-called 'benefit fraud'. There are about 110,000 investigations conducted by Income Support every year. Sixty to seventy thousand of these are of women on the Domestic Purposes Benefit to check whether or not they are in marriage-type relationships. People who have not committed fraud are at times penalised and have to pay back huge sums through reductions in their benefit even though they are not guilty. These people require an advocate to fight their cause.

For many people the fact of being poor and on a benefit means constant humiliation and petty control. Beneficiaries often have to submit to small scale victimisation and invasions of their privacy if they are to keep their benefit. The suggestion that parents be deprived of their benefit if they do not have their children immunised is an example of this. Similarly there is an attempt to limit the use of complementary health procedures, even if recommended by a general practitioner.

They have no capital to engage a lawyer to fight for their rights, and their confidence is at such a low ebb that they need the supportive environment of the Centre and its staff to help them through the appeal procedure.

The work of the Centre is to right these injustices by providing advocates to take the case through an appeal procedure.

Jim's view of the future
"While we have to acknowledge the systems that run society we use them only as an interim step because for effective change new systems need to be developed. However, working towards solutions in a constantly changing economic environment is a long-term process."

He keeps the core philosophy in place while facilitating a constantly changing working environment, with different group dynamics year by year as groups change. The Beneficiaries Advisory Service reflects what is actually happening in the community through the responsive nature of the groups dealing with issues and problems.

What B.A.S. challenges is the blame placed on unemployed people for problems which result from the economic system and are not their fault.

While some money comes from the general funding agencies it is a constant struggle to survive. This is mainly because B.A.S. regularly challenges preconceptions in the status quo. Consistent support comes from the Lotteries Board, the Christchurch City Council, Trustbank and the Community Organisations Grants Scheme. Increasingly the Government is attempting to have any community development or social service purely subsumed to their political interests, rather than to the needs of people.

There has always been a group marginalised by society, but the size of the group has been increasing markedly in the last five years. This means that there is an ever-increasing need for the work of the Beneficiaries Advisory Service.


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